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Building a Better Bridge Between Funders and Community

Written by Jane Erickson, Jennifer Fassbender, Colleen Flynn, and Emily Yu on June 21, 2022

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We are experiencing a watershed moment for philanthropy-funded social change efforts in the United States. The partnerships, knowledge, and resources that funders leverage have never been more important in contributing to the conditions that communities need for everyone to thrive, without exceptions. With such a rapid pace of change happening all around us, how can funders make the most of their role in supporting and advancing large-scale, transformative impact? The answer is to look forward with the benefit of hindsight and with partners who understand where and how to take those next steps.

For example, intermediaries that connect communities and funders supporting place-based efforts are critical partners in social change efforts. These nationally and regionally focused programs and their teams are steeped in the shared challenges and opportunities in communities that seek to drive sustainable improvements in health. The authors of this piece, each with experience as both funder and intermediary, consider four key questions about what it will take to build a shared understanding of what works, for whom, and under what conditions to inform the future of community health and well-being.

What does it take to build collaborative capacity and norms for stewarding equitable change across diverse organizations in communities?

Invest in the fundamentals. It is well documented across programs and communities that there are key enabling factors that contribute to systems change. These conditions are often characterized by enhanced knowledge, strengthened relationships, community ownership, and increased capacity among partners—as outlined in The BUILD Health Challenge’s Community Approaches to Systems Change. Together, and when working in concert, these factors signal that progress is being made in addressing entrenched local systems. Despite their importance, their intangible and slowly evolving nature often means they do not fit the criteria for investment by funders for grants that require specific, time-limited outputs. Funders working to support cross-sector and community-driven collaboratives would be wise to invest in these fundamental mechanisms for change. Doing so supports capacity building in communities and helps lay the groundwork for lasting systems change.

How can we support the centering of unheard and underheard voices in the pursuit of health equity?

Shift power. Across our organizations, we have supported centering unheard and underheard voices in the pursuit of health equity using a multifaceted approach. This includes centering community-led solutions to advance national momentum for coordinated structural changes and paying attention to who has decision-making power. The approach also challenges funders to review their internal policies and practices and reflect on how their decisions are made to ensure that historically marginalized communities benefit from actions to address racist “redlining” and inequities in health, wellbeing, and opportunity. Working with funders, we deepen multisector collaboratives centered on Belonging and Civic Muscle and offer communities opportunities to reimagine our democracy in creative and equitable ways that can lead to policy reforms, as outlined in Build Health Places Network’s Policy Scan.

Helping to support governance that embeds community voice, trust, and the ability for communities to shift levers of change is not simply a best practice in community engagement, but a way in which to transform one’s own organization and the philanthropic sector more broadly. In the future, funders must seize this opportunity to decentralize funding processes to center community power in decisions, supports, and resources.

How can we design programming that supports community needs?

Align visions. Across aligned multicity and multisector learning networks, funders and intermediary organizations are considering more holistic approaches to advancing equity. This involves developing a deeper understanding of how policies and practices create and perpetuate barriers to inequality and determining with community partners codesigned interventions that are needed to build systems that are more equitable. Public, private, and nonprofit sector partners are aligning on a resident-centered vision of place that leverages assets in the built-environment and other health-promoting conditions. The result is new narratives for change in disinvested neighborhoods with more sustained impacts. In Missoula, Montana, for example, a health equity coordinator, originally funded by the Invest Health initiative, grew a resident-centered approach in the city’s department of public health. This effort became a model of effective community partnership that is now built into the city’s budget across several other agencies. The alignment of resources where and when communities need them most is critical in addressing inequities in communities and the factors influencing community investment systems.

What are the most important practices that philanthropy can embrace to support equitable, thriving communities?

Change systems. Old-style philanthropy often undercuts aspirations for large-scale, transformational change through divisive power dynamics and short-sighted projects. Such habits create resistance to change because the mindsets and behaviors associated with them are so ingrained. ReThink Health’s 2021 Pulse Check on Shared Stewardship for Thriving Together Across America points to several interconnected practices that philanthropy can embrace to more effectively catalyze equitable systemic change. Two critically important practices are prioritizing systems change and investing in those with the most to gain. Pulse Check findings indicate that making systems change the most important organizational priority has a cascade of positive effects. Organizations that prioritize systems change as their central goal are much more likely to invest in those with the most to gain—a strategy that is critical for addressing our nation’s history of systematically favoring certain people and places while harming or neglecting others.

The future of large-scale, place-based social change efforts that support community health relies on developing connections and capacity across engaged networks to more effectively share learnings and surface implications so that we can more effectively and efficiently scale norms and practices that work. By bridging the experiences of both communities and funders, intermediaries can be helpful conduits in building networks for shared learning—but only if philanthropic leaders support the strategic investment in fundamentals, shift in power, alignment of resources, and change in systems. Will you seize this opportunity for change, and in so doing help reshape the future of community health?

Written by:

Jane Erickson, Director of Learning and Impact, The Rippel Foundation/ ReThink Health
Jennifer Fassbender, Program Director, Invest Health, Reinvestment Fund
Colleen Flynn, Senior Director of National Programs, Build Healthy Places Network
Emily Yu, Executive Director, The BUILD Health Challenge; Managing Director of Partnerships, de Beaumont Foundation

This article was originally published as part of Grantmakers in Health’s ongoing Views from the Field series.


About the Authors


Jane Erickson

Director of Learning and Impact

The Rippel Foundation/ ReThink Health

Jane leads Rippel’s Learning and Impact team and directs the ReThink Health initiative’s Amplifying Stewardship Together project. Jane has worked with national philanthropies to advance social change for over a decade. She has led numerous nation-wide research efforts to build a shared understanding of the landscape of multisector collaboration to improve community health, including the ReThink Health Pulse Check. Previously, Jane oversaw strategy and implementation of the ReThink Health Ventures project (2016-2018), a large-scale project that advanced multisector approaches for health transformation. Jane has also worked to foster civic engagement across communities in the US and internationally, including as a Fulbright Scholar in Indonesia and with the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. In 2020, Jane was named a Terrance Keenan Institute fellow by Grantmakers in Health.

About the Authors


Jennifer Fassbender

Program Director

Invest Health, Reinvestment Fund

Jennifer Fassbender leads the national Invest Health and regional Building Healthier, More Equitable Communities in New Jersey program initiatives that support multi-sector teams in small to midsized cities working to improve the social determinants of health so all people can thrive. With over 20 years of collective leadership experience in healthcare, research, and non-profit sectors, she has dedicated her career to improving the health and wellbeing of people and communities.


About the Authors


Colleen Flynn

Senior Director of National Programs

Build Healthy Places Network

Colleen Flynn is the Senior Director of National Programs of Build Healthy Places Network where she oversees program and project implementation and partnership development. She brings more than a decade of experience crafting community development strategies that address health disparities. Prior to joining the Network, Colleen was the Director of Programs at Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) New York City office. She oversaw multiple programs that incorporate health into LISC’s equitable development efforts. In this role Colleen developed cross-sector collaborations in NYC communities to address food access and green and healthy affordable housing and join health care centers with a variety of community partners.

About the Authors


Emily Yu

Executive Director, The BUILD Health Challenge

Managing Director of Partnerships, de Beaumont Foundation

As Executive Director of The BUILD Health Challenge, Emily is helping to change the future of health in America and leading the charge to cultivate cross-sector collaborations that are working to give everyone a fair chance to be healthy. With two decades of experience in program development and social marketing strategy implementation, for both the public and private sectors, Emily brings together a unique perspective that fuels her passion for both identifying and proving sustainable models for social change.